“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none…It’s like a snake that sheds its skin. The outside look different when the scales change, but the inside always the same.” ~Richie in Sing.Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s Sing,Unburied Sing turned me inside out, put another crack in my heart, and turned on another light in my brain. How can one small book harbor so many of today’s heart-breaking headlines: the tragedy of how we treat one another because of something as shallow as skin pigmentation, the epidemic of rural drug addiction and the damage it does to families, the never-ending scourge of poverty and the way it leaves its victims voiceless for generations, and the unjust, ineptly named judicial system in America and the damage it does to us all. Somehow, Ward shines a light on all of these while telling an engaging story and creating complex, nuanced characters that I expect we will remember for a long time.
Before I was through the first chapter, I loved JoJo as a precocious, wounded, strong, promising 13-year-old young man. By the time I reached the scene where the sheriff’s deputy pulls the gun on him, I was floored by my own shocked, naïve reaction. My mind went to “No, you can’t do that. He’s just a child. That’s not right. That couldn’t happen.” And then I remembered that it happens every day somewhere in America, very often with more tragic results than JoJo’s luck in that scene. That’s when I realized how sheltered, how unaware on a visceral level I am of what young black men in America live and how overwhelmingly frightening it must be to be the parent of a black child. Even though I try to be compassionate and empathetic, I don’t have the experience, the ability to understand. It’s truly unfortunate that the people in power in this situation are also the people who have no capacity to understand the nature of its insidious truths. How will we ever get anywhere? Maybe by beginning to understand that we cannot understand.
Ward’s recognition this week by the MacArthur Foundation encourages me to look forward to more novels from her in the coming years. I haven’t read her National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones, but I intend to just as soon as I can handle another emotionally wrenching novel. I understand it too is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. I have a feeling both novels are just two of the stories the lyrical, perceptive Ward eventually will give us, and I know we will be better for receiving them.